Thursday, September 10, 2015

Englewood Cliffs Borough Council Closed Meeting Minutes

Clerk Duffy: (via e-mail on September 10, 2015)

Based on the on-line version of the Council's September 9, 2015 meeting agenda, I believe that that Council approved the minutes from the following closed meetings: April 18, 2012, May 9, 2012, June 13, 2012, July 11, 2012, October 10, 2012, November 20, 2012, December 3, 2012, December 12, 2012, March 13, 2013, May 8, 2013, June 12, 2013, July 10, 2013, August 14, 2013, October 9, 2013, December 11, 2013, February 11, 2014, April 9, 2014, May 14, 2014, June 18, 2014, July 9, 2014, and August 25, 2014.

While there are still some closed meeting minutes that haven't been approved (e.g. September 10, 2014, October 6, 2014 and November 12, 2014), I understand from our August 31, 2015 telephone conversation that these minutes, together with those closed sessions held during the first half of 2015, will be prepared and approved at the October 14, 2015 Council Meeting.

Given this, I will not file an Open Public Meetings Act lawsuit against the Borough prior to October 14, 2015.

Thank you for your cooperation in this regard.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Englewood Cliffs Mayor violated ethics law, fined $100.

After a three and a half year investigation, New Jersey's Local Finance Board (LFB) concluded that Englewood Cliffs Mayor Joseph C. Parisi, Jr. violated the Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL) and assessed a $100 fine against him.

The matter was originated by a March 7, 2012 complaint filed by John Paff and the New Jersey Libertarian Party.  The complaint alleged that Parisi, who served on the Board of Directors of North Jersey Community Bank and as Chairman of Otterstedt Insurance Agency, failed to recuse himself from the Borough Council's 2010 consideration of a $9.8 million Board of Education budget that voters had rejected.  At the time of the discussions, the Board of Education had active accounts with both North Jersey Community Bank and Otterstedt Insurance Agency. The record reflects that Parisi advocated making "no cuts" the the Board's budget.  The Notice of Violation and complaint are on-line here.

The LFB found that Parisi "had a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence."  The Local Government Ethics Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.9 sets the minimum fine at $100 and the maximum at $500.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Draft minutes of 07/09/14 public meeting disclosed more than a year later.

For some reason, the Borough Council has yet to approve the minutes of the regular meeting held on July 9, 2014.  In response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, Administrator/Clerk Lisette M. Duffy disclosed a draft version of those minutes and advised me that "these minutes will be voted on at the next meeting."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

RE: Borough Council Executive Session Meeting Minutes

August 22, 2015

Hon. Joseph C. Parisi, Jr., Mayor and members of the
Englewood Cliffs Borough Council
482 Hudson Terrace
Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632
via e-mail and Fax to 201-569-4356

Dear Mayor Parisi and Council members:

On August 12, 2015, I requested Minutes of the Borough Council executive sessions held between March 23, 2012 and June 10, 2015 except those for January 16, 2013 and February 13, 2013.  (I did not request the minutes from January 16, 2013 and February 13, 2013 because I have already posted them on my blog.)

In her August 21, 2015 response, Borough Administrator and Clerk Lisette M. Duffy provided me with the minutes of the executive sessions held on April 17, 2013; January 15, 2014; March 12, 2014; October 6, 2014 and November 12, 2014.   As for the remainder of the minutes, Duffy explained:
All remaining minutes (not included in the e-mail) are being reviewed by the Borough Attorney and will be provided to the Mayor and Council for their approval.  Once voted on, the approved the minutes [sic] will be available to the public.  As per your request, I can e-mail you the additional minutes once voted on. I anticipate all minutes will be voted on within the next 2 months.
Englewood Cliffs apparent cannot--in August 2015--produce minutes from more than two years ago. For example, the Borough Council went into executive session at its March 13, 2013 caucus meeting but those minutes, although within the scope of my August 12, 2015 request, were not disclosed. Those minutes, among many others, are apparently "being reviewed by the Borough Attorney" to be voted on "within the next two months."

I find the desultory manner in which the Borough keeps its executive session minutes unacceptable, especially given the Borough's past problems with meeting minutes.  In her April 13, 2015 article "Englewood Cliffs brings mystery over missing minutes to an end," Kim Lueddeke reported that the Borough's 2011 meeting minutes--both public and executive--"never existed."  While all the minutes I am presently seeking are from meetings that took place after 2011, the fact that the Borough lost a years worth of it minutes should have caused the Council to tighten up the process by which its minutes are recorded, approved and maintained.

Also, see Chris Neidenberg's February 16, 2015 Northern Valley Press article "Five years of closed meeting minutes remain sealed."  In this article--written more than six months ago--Duffy, in response to Ms. McMorrow's request for five years worth of executive minutes, told McMorrow that the bulk of those minutes "will be released upon review by the mayor and council.  This will take some time, but those that are approved will be provided to you."  This is essentially the same refrain that Duffy is repeating to me six months later. Also in Neidenberg's article, Borough Attorney E. Carter Corriston, Sr. acknowledged that the Borough is "way behind on approving [its] minutes" and that he "is working on it."

With all due respect, the Borough Council has had ample time to review the executive session minutes within the scope of my request.  If I believed that waiting two more months, as Duffy requests, would cause the minutes to be disclosed, I'd be willing to wait.  Unfortunately, the Borough's election to dither during the past six months instead of getting its store in order causes me to believe that waiting another two months would be a waste of time.

Accordingly, I need for the Borough's indecisiveness to stop and for it do whatever needs to be done to get the 2013 and 2014 executive minutes within the scope of my August 12, 2015 request ready for disclosure, either in full or as redacted, by its September 9, 2015 meeting.  If there are any minutes within the scope of my request that, like the 2011 minutes, "don't exist," I ask that the Council come clean and just admit which minutes don't exist at the September 9, 2015 meeting. If the Council declines my invitation and continues to dither, I will enlist the aid of a Superior Court Judge to help refocus the Council's, Ms. Duffy's and Mr. Corriston's attention and priorities.

Very truly yours,

John Paff

Friday, February 20, 2015

Northern Valley Press: Council allots $50K for jail cell improvements

From the February 16, 2015 Northern Valley Press: 

Northern Valley Press: Five years of closed meeting minutes remain sealed

From the February 16, 2015 Northern Valley Press:

Northern Valley Press: Fiscal Plans

From the February 9, 2015 Northern Valley Press:  Fiscal Plans

Northern Valley Press: Animal Shelter Debate

From the February 2, 2015 Northern Valley Press:  Animal Shelter Debate

The Record: Englewood Cliffs Health Board's animal control switch criticized

January 29, 2015 Last updated: Thursday, January 29, 2015, 12:31 AM
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — Residents urged the Mayor and Council to step-in regarding a controversial decision the Board of Health made to terminate its contract with the Bergen County Protect and Rescue Foundation — a no-kill animal shelter.
Community members gathered at the Jan. 14 council meeting arguing the move to allow the Bergen County Animal Shelter to handle stray cats, dogs, adoptions and euthanizations contending the latter number of such cases is high. The borough has been working with Protect and Rescue Foundation since 2011.
Compared to the Bergen County Animal Shelter, in 2013 the Protect and Rescue Founda-tion impounded 270 dogs and 133 cats. The Protect and Rescue Foundation did euthanize one dog while 134 dogs and 84 cats were adopted, according to the foundation.
In 2013 the Bergen County Animal Shelter impounded 784 dogs and 1,753 cats. The shelter put down 148 dogs and 638 cats while 320 dogs and 851 cats were adopted, according to the county.
"Upwards of 40 percent of the animals that were taken to that shelter were euthanized," Vince Ascolese, supervising animal control officer at the Protect and Rescue Foundation, said.
Resident Cynthia Bellucci accused the county's shelter of being unprofessional when it came to trapping an animal on her property several years ago.
"I had a skunk at my house and it smelled so bad that me and the officer thought it was a gas leak, it was so bad," Bellucci said. "[The County] took 72 hours to pick up that skunk and that was unacceptable."
Others expressed their support for seeing animals adopted instead of euthanized.
"I have a rescue dog and every time I look at that dog I realize and thank god I got him from a no-kill shelter," said former borough councilwoman Carrol McMorrow.
Board of Health President Diane Clarke defended designating the Bergen County Animal Shelter as the borough's animal control.
"We had two public sessions to discuss this and there were no members of the public there," Clarke said. "This is nothing personal. This is about what is best for the animals. Yes there are some euthanizations but these animals get examined first before that decision."
She said the Bergen County Animal Shelter has a dedicated place to play and exercise with the animals versus keeping them in crates while they wait to be adopted at the Protect and Rescue Foundation.
"They have a track on premises," Clarke said. "We discussed it, we voted and we chose what we feel is right."
The Bergen County Animal Shelter could not be reached for comment by press time.
Despite public outcry, Mayor Joseph Parisi said the council can only recommend the Board of Health revisit the issue because the group is an autonomous body and doesn't have to consider what the council asks.
"We do not control the 'purse strings,' we appropriate certain monies to them," said Borough Attorney E. Carter Corriston. "They are an autonomous body. We do not control them."
Councilwoman Lauren Eastwood recommended Parisi advise the Board of Health to revisit the issue.
"I'm disgusted with the Board of Health's decision," Eastwood said. "I would like to ask them to have another vote at a new meeting that is well publicized so residents can come and make their voice heard."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Record editorial: Silence in Englewood Cliffs

January 21, 2015 Last updated: Wednesday, January 21, 2015, 8:11 AM
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. seems determined to make sure everyone in town knows he's the one in charge.
So he recently promulgated an executive order requiring council members who want information from borough employees to clear the requests with him first. Parisi's order also mandates that the mayor must approve all official borough communications to the public and media.
Such power grabs by mayors are hardly unique and are generally in response to political change, which apparently is the case here. Parisi, a Democrat, issued his order soon after Republican Lauren Eastwood was appointed to fill a council vacancy. Prior to joining the council, Eastwood frequently sought borough information through the Open Public Records Act.
Republicans suggest the mayor's order was a preemptive strike to keep Eastwood from continuing to make OPRA requests of borough employees. Parisi denies that, saying his order simply reinforces the way communication should be done.
We disagree. Council members, like the mayor, are elected by the people. If a council member has a pertinent question for the police chief or the head of the public works department, he or she should be able to ask the official directly. In a small town such as Englewood Cliffs, forcing council members to go through the mayor before they can get answers to simple questions introduces a bureaucratic regimen that is counterproductive.
Parisi's order also calls for all official borough communications to go through the mayor. That provision has the potential to curtail the ability, and the right, of council members to speak out.
While the mayor remains a municipality's chief spokesperson, council members have as much right as the mayor does to speak publicly on any issue they want. For example, if they don't like the proposed budget, they should say so. Elected officials can speak out at council meetings, at informal gatherings around town, in press releases or through social media. The mayor is not the only officeholder with a platform.
E. Carter Corriston Sr., the borough attorney, tellingly told The Record that there would be no legal sanctions against council members who violate the mayor's executive order.
That's not surprising, given the fact it's not against the law for an elected official to speak publicly or to ask borough employees questions. Nor should it be against borough policy.

The Record: Mayor's executive order stirs conflict in Englewood Cliffs

January 18, 2015, 7:52 PM Last updated: Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 8:41 AM
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – A month after a community activist and frequent filer of requests under the Open Public Records Act was appointed to the Borough Council, the mayor issued an executive order requiring that all council members’ requests for information from borough employees go through him.

“It’s just the way of communication that should be done,” Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. said at a council meeting Wednesday, adding, “It’s not a gag order.”

But borough Republicans cried foul, questioning whether Parisi had the legal authority to control the council’s communications and alleging that the order was targeted at Lauren Eastwood, who was appointed to the council last month, after Ramon Ferro resigned.

Eastwood is a Republican. Parisi is a Democrat.

Parisi denied the accusation.

“There is no connection,” Parisi said. The order is “preventive,” he said, adding, “It’s not meant for any individual.” The order applies only to requests made by council members in relation to their official duties, Parisi said. In an email, Eastwood said she was disappointed in Parisi’s actions.

The borough GOP chairwoman, former Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow, echoed those sentiments: “I am disappointed to see that the mayor took such an action that clearly will be impeding the flow of information,” she said. “Being faced with a difficult budget year, all council people should have the ability to hold government accountable and scrutinize how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Parisi said his order, which was issued Wednesday, came after he said he observed some “hiccups” in how the council communicated with borough employees – for example, multiple requests being made for the same information. The order is also a way to control costs, as most of the borough’s professional employees charge for their time, Parisi said.

“All of this is so we communicate better. … I’m trying to free up not only Lisette, but all of the professionals,” Parisi said, referring to the borough clerk and administrator, Lisette Duffy.

He pledged to respond to council requests in a “very timely” manner.

Parisi’s order calls for all requests for information to be directed to him for approval and forwarding to the appropriate departments and/or professionals, except in emergency situations. It also includes provisions that:

— Communication between department heads and council committees should only be performed by committee heads.

— Council members cannot intervene with municipal employees, volunteers and professionals unless they receive mayoral approval.

— All official borough communications to the public and media must be approved by Parisi.

Borough Attorney E. Carter Corriston Sr. said council members cannot be legally sanctioned if they violate the order. Parisi said that if someone disregards the directive, he might first address the action with them privately. If it continues, he said, he would bring the matter to the council.

Though noting he did not need their approval, Parisi called for a vote of confidence from the council Wednesday.

The three Democrats – Joseph Favaro, Gloria Oh and Ed Aversa – all voted in favor of the order. Eastwood voted against it. Her fellow Republican, Zhi Liang, voted that he favored the order “in general,” though he also called it “very strict” and voiced concern over some of the language.

Nunzio Consalvo, also a Republican, attended the meeting via telephone but had hung up by the time Parisi called for the vote.

The Borough Council adopted a similar resolution in 2012, when McMorrow was on the council. Parisi said his executive order overrides this resolution.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Record editorial: Rocky Political Road

October 12, 2014 Last updated: Sunday, October 12, 2014, 1:21 AM

WHILE it's great that Englewood Cliffs residents will enjoy freshly paved streets, the letter Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. sent out crediting the Borough Council's Democrats with making that possible at a good price was clearly a political stunt.

This is the epitome of small-town politics, and the public deserves better.

The mayor, a Democrat, sent residents in parts of the borough a letter approximately two weeks ago notifying them that their streets will be paved and there could potentially be road closures.

It also said the borough saved money with the project thanks to Borough Council members Gloria Oh, Edward Aversa and Joseph Favaro, who are all Democrats, with two of them up for reelection next month. Parisi told Staff Writer Kim Lueddeke that he only listed the Democrats because they are on the council's public works committee.

The letter didn't come from the public works committee — it was on borough letterhead and signed by the mayor.

The campaign treasurer for two Republican council candidates asked the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission to investigate whether the Democrats violated campaign finance law by not reporting the letter as a political communication.

Regulations on a "political communication" include whether the candidate was involved in any way and it's within 90 days of the candidate's election, sent to an audience "substantially comprised" of voters and references the candidate's governmental or political achievements.

The exception is if the communication informs citizens about a public emergency. And that is Parisi's argument. Raising the possibility of road closures can make this exception apply to the letter, he says.
Lueddeke reports that the Englewood Cliffs Republican chairwoman, Carrol McMorrow, is demanding that Parisi, Aversa and Oh admit that they were wrong and "immediately" reimburse the taxpayers for the cost of the mailing.

Parisi estimated the cost of the mailing to be $90 and said, "If ELEC feels that I've done something wrong, I'll be more than willing to pay them back."

He should save everyone's time and reimburse the borough now. It's not about the relatively small amount of money, but the principle of this action. To argue that it wasn't a political mailing is an insult to the public's intelligence.

Borough councils should be working to find cost-effective ways to provide services like street paving. But when a mayor uses borough stationery and funds to applaud his preferred candidates a month before an election, he crosses a line.

There will always be small-town politics, but local officials don't need to embrace it quite so passionately.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Englewood Cliffs Borough Council closed meeting minutes now on line.

In response to my OPRA request, the Borough provided me with minutes from some council executive sessions held in 2010 and 2013.  I've put them on-line here.